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The Magic and Science of Flow

Many great minds have written eloquently and at length about Flow States. This is our offering to summarize volumes of information down to a few digestible pages. We hope you enjoy it.
First I talk about being a warrior, like a samurai...but also about ‘The Zone.’ They know what ‘The Zone’ is, they know what ‘being in flow’ is, so when I talk about that, they’re all ears.
— George Mumford, sports psychologist and mindful meditation teacher on training Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal about achieving Flow States
Image credit: The New York Times
Flow is the essence of optimal performance
A Flow State is characterized by complete absorption in a Task, which results in a total transformation of your sense of time.
“Flow” was coined by Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in 1975. After interviewing a number of people about this unique state of mind that happens when they become absorbed in their work, he chose a metaphor related to water carrying a person along.
Flow States have a feeling of attainable transcendence. High-performance athletes and artists train to enter this state. It is the moment when the world falls away from a great player: there is no finals clock ticking down to 0:00, there are no opponents, there are no fans. There is simply the player, the arcing ball, and the swish of the net.
This is equally true of the poet and the poem, the architect and the blueprint, and the group huddled around a whiteboard and the equation.
Csikszentmihalyi noted that people more easily enter Flow States when engaging in activities that they love. He also recognized that people can train to be in Flow States, and the more you train, the more often it happens.
The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The following characteristics help you achieve Flow
  • The experience usually occurs when you confront tasks you have a chance of completing
  • You must be able to concentrate on what you’re doing
  • Concentration is usually possible because the task has clear goals and provides immediate feedback
  • Enjoyable experiences allow you to exercise a sense of control over your actions, increasing the opportunity for Flow
  • Concern for the self disappears; paradoxically, your sense of self becomes stronger after the Flow experience is over
Unlike most other states of consciousness, which are defined by a singular type of attention, flow breaks boundaries, straddling multiple categories at once.
— Steven Kotler
The magic of Flow
A Flow State produces an almost-mystical experience. Your sense of time is transformed. The difference between five minutes and five hours dissolves. You become so engrossed in a Task you lose all sense of minutes and hours.
Flow has been compared to trances and hypnosis. Because the Flow State shuts down the part of your brain that creates your ego, you feel immersed in everything around you.
You feel at one with yourself and the world.
Flow presents an opportunity to maximize your potential. People in Flow States perform their duties better and with more enjoyment than they would otherwise, whether it’s writing a book, completing 100 lines of code, or running a marathon.
People in Flow report a sense of transcendence from everyday anxieties and concerns. No longer hindered, they’re able to focus completely and achieve their goals.
Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfilment.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The science of Flow
Our brain can process roughly 120 bits of information per second. Csikszentmihalyi originally became interested in the complete absorption of painters while at work; they’d go hours without eating or resting. He realized their full attention was focused on a single Task.
Using fMRI machines, researchers learned that Flow is a subjective experience—the same neurological patterns emerge in every subject. They had previously assumed the prefrontal cortex (PFC) processes Flow. This brain region is responsible for complex cognitive abilities, such as planning ahead, evaluating rewards and time, suppressing urges, making moral decisions, learning from experience, and having a sense of self. Yet the PFC actually shuts down during Flow, which is the reason it feels instinctual and automatic.
Flow is the result of the synchronization of attentional and reward networks in the brain. A balance of challenge and skill is required.
Researchers can artificially induce Flow States in several ways. One is through the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to turn off the PFC, which has been shown to help people perform and learn more efficiently. In one study on military training, DARPA found that snipers were also able to remain focused under highly stressful conditions during Flow.
Besides a greater sense of focus, people that experience Flow often overcome challenges in the way of achieving their goals, raising their overall sense of life satisfaction. People in Flow attribute this state for helping them be more creative and feel more competent.
Everything just slows down. You have supreme confidence. You get into the zone and just try and stay there.
— Kobe Bryant
Music and Flow
Music also promotes Flow States. Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Charles Limb used fMRI to examine the brains of improv jazz musicians and freestyle rappers. When musicians improvise, their PFC is deactivated—specifically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is the region known for self-monitoring and impulse control. Limb showed that since Flow is a fluid state, second-guessing slows down the process of getting into this mindset.
Some music is better than others. Music with emotional or sentimental overtones is likely to stimulate your amygdala (emotions) and hippocampus (memory), which are both in your primitive emotional system. Music that is too fast, variable, or loud will jar your locus coeruleus into distraction. Don’t pick your favorite music or songs you abhor; find music that is somewhat pleasurable. Music with lyrics has been shown to be distracting when compared to instrumentals.
Music made with a tempo of 60-90 beats per minute decreases neural activity. This tempo increases alpha brain waves and decreases higher-activity beta waves. An increase in alpha waves is tied to decreased self-awareness, timelessness, and motivation—the exact conditions needed for a Flow State. One study even shows that musicians perform better when in Flow than during their normal performance routine.
Quotes about Flow States
“I kind of entered a Flow State. I’ve been there before while climbing. You are not thinking ahead. You are just thinking about what is in front of you each second.”
— Aron Ralston, first person to solo climb all of Colorado’s 14,000 peaks in winter and inspiration for the film, “127 Hours”
“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“Flow is more than an optimal state of consciousness … Flow is what makes life worth living.”
— Steven Kotler, journalist
“In Flow, our work seems effortless, creativity goes into overdrive, and motivation springs forth from within.”
— Dragos Bratasanu, scientist
Lastly, this makes us happy
Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi's TED Talk on Flow + Happiness
Flow Resources